Facing the Music: Future of Venues and Small Businesses Is Uncertain Due to the Pandemic, But Many Fight On

NYC Music venue Arlene's Grocery
Arlene's Grocery / Instagram

When the world shut down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, so too did many of the small businesses that are at the core of vibrant communities. Mom-and-pop shops already under pressure from bigger competitors struggle to stay afloat. Local restaurants relied on for a good meal and a warm welcome were forced to close their doors. And with no one able to perform, so many venues, havens for music junkies, folded. 

Music venues like Great Scott in Boston, The Jazz Standard in New York City, Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach, California, and the Mothlight in Asheville, North Carolina, are just some of the places that have closed their doors.

“Hundreds of venues have gone under so far,” Audrey Fix Schaefer, a representative for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), told Rolling Stone in September. “I think there are a lot of others that have been just holding on, totally white knuckle, in hopes of this funding to come through. And they keep waiting and waiting, but there comes a time when that wait is going to stop.”

NIVA has launched a campaign called "Save Our Stages," which is aiming to save venues from going under and alerting congress. In August, New York Senator Chuck Schumer co-sponsored a bill called the “Save Our Stages” act, which is trying to secure $10 billion to give to venues for relief.

“Independent venues were among the very first [businesses] to close during the pandemic and will be among the last to reopen — so we have to make sure they get federal funding,” Schumer said in a statement in August, when he announced the bill proposal.

“While the PPP grants were welcome, those venues are in a unique situation where that wasn’t as much help as it was for other businesses,” Minnesota Senator and Save Our Stages co-sponsor Amy Klobuchar wrote in an op-ed for Rolling Stone. “They’ve always operated on a thin margin.”

On Monday. Dec. 21, the Senate passed a $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief and omnibus spending package following a vote from Congress and the House, CNN reports. The package includes $15 billion for venues as part of the "Save Our Stages" act which Rolling Stone reports was "folded into [the] larger bill." The more than 5,000 page conoravirus relief and omnibus package then goes to President Trump who can sign into into action or veto it. The president signed the stopgap spending bill just after midnight Dec. 22, according to CNN, which keeps the government open until Dec. 28, essentially delaying winter break for politicians. On Tuesday, Dec. 22, Trump called the coronavirus and omnibus package a "disgrace," in a video he posted on Twitter, saying he wanted much higher payments to individuals and couples and blasted the bill for the tax reduction given to restaurants and small business owners, saying they should be treated better. While he didn't explicitly state that he would veto the bill, he called on Congress to amend it.

Yet, with no live music, venues across America continue to suffer.

Independent venues are especially vulnerable. Places in danger of shutting down include New Orleans’ Tipitina’s, where jazz staples Dr. John & the Neville Brothers played; the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia, where R.E.M. and the B-52’s made their name and Minneapolis’s First Avenue, which Prince helped put on map in the film “Purple Rain.”

The Troubadour in Los Angeles, where Elton John cut his teeth in America, and Washington, D.C.’s The 9:30 Club, where punk acts like Fugazi and Bad Brains started out, are also at risk. Places considered institutions, like the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, and legendary New York hotpots including the Bowery Ballroom, the Bitter End and Mercury Lounge, are teetering on the edge of ruin.

There is an unprecedented history in these locations, not just to music but to the scene and relationships they built with their communities.

Arlene’s Grocery, a legendary Manhattan Lower East Side music venue that opened in 1995, was supposed to celebrate their 25th anniversary in a big way this year. However, the global pandemic had other plans. The venue has been closed since the pandemic ground everything to a halt in early March. And they are in danger of closing for good if they don't get help in 2021.

Arlene’s stage has featured the likes of The Strokes, Lady Gaga, John Legend, Lana Del Rey, Arcade Fire, The Bravery and Jeff Buckley, and gave those artists and countless others a chance when not many venues would.

“When you lose venues it triggers people because they are institutions where you share so many memories,” Jennifer "Blue" Gonzales, general manager of Arlene’s Grocery told Inside Edition Digital. “We didn’t realize the bigger picture of what Arlene’s was. We feel so fortunate for people helping us.”

In November, the venue announced that if they don’t raise enough money by Feb. 1, they will be forced to shut their doors for good. They announced the news on social media and it wasn't long before they received an outpouring of support.

“The anxiety level of posting that we were in a situation ... we admitted to ourselves that closing is real,” she said. “It is a dark time, a real time, a negative time.”

The venue has launched a Venmo account and GoFundMe page. They need to make $80,000 before the end of January to hold them over. They hoped the "Save Our Stages" bill would pass, now they wait for it to be signed into action by the president.

Arlene’s has also been thinking outside the box by hosting live streams and selling exclusive merchandise to raise money.

Gonzales says that she has received support from the music and art community not just in New York City, but also from music lovers around the country who have never been to the venue. She said that someone from Texas who had never been to the venue but knew it was important to music felt the need to donate because of that.

“We felt so much love and hugs — virtually of course,” Gonzales said. “I don’t think everyone is ready for the end of Arlene’s and fighting to save New York City from dying, but I am hopeful and remain optimistic.

“The beautiful thing about New York City is we always find a way,” she continued. “The beautiful thing about humans is we always find a way.”

Music venues are not the only pillars of community in danger, as the U.S. has seen a staggering number of small businesses close around the country.

An astonishing 10,000 restaurants around the U.S. have closed since September, CBS News reported in December.

Sean Kennedy, executive vice president for Public Affairs at the National Restaurant Association, wrote in a Dec. 7 letter sent to Congressional leadership obtained by CBS News, that “for every month that passes without a solution from Congress, thousands more restaurants across the country will close their doors for good."

Local news reports out of cities such as Boston and Portland have called some of their city’s high streets “a ghost town” in the wake of an abundance of stores closing. 

“More than 55 storefronts and office properties on Boston’s iconic Newbury Street sit vacant, six months after the COVID-19 pandemic first locked down businesses statewide,” the Boston Herald reported in August.

For 22 years, Mychelle Mordente ran Ragg Mopp Vintage Clothing in Los Angeles, catering to people hunting for fun fashion and to the entertainment industry. But due to the pandemic, she can longer afford to keep the shop open.

"I could cry right now," Mordente told Inside Edition in June. "It's my life. It's my identity. It's my passion."

Krimsey Jones also shut down her business and life’s dream, the first Cajun vegan restaurant in the world, located in Los Angeles. She says that the future is too uncertain to remain in business.

"I had to ask myself some hard questions, do I want to fight this uphill battle for the next year, year and a half?" Jones told Inside Edition.

Those that are still open are fighting to keep their doors open beyond the pandemic.

Astor Place Hair Stylists, a business that has been open for nearly 75 years in Manhattan, told the public in October that they were going out of business due to the pandemic. They had expected to close their doors around Thanksgiving, but wealthy patrons of the business stepped in to keep that from happening.

Financier Jonathan Trichter told the New York Post that investors in the business had joined in to make sure the business is “open for at least another 75 years.”

Other New York City institutions like Kellogg's Diner in Brooklyn has been a popular neighborhood destination for almost 50 years, but owner Irene Siderakis told Inside Edition in November that even while her loyal customers are trying to help keep the restaurant open, they are in danger of closing. Manhattan bookstore The Strand, open since 1927, faces the same prospect. The store’s owner told Inside Edition that sales are down 70% and they could close for good, but are fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen. 

Another book store, Chicago’s famed Seminary Co-op Bookstores, are doing all they can to make sure they carry on. Having been closed to the public since the start of the pandemic in March, the famed and fabled booksellers has been forced to cancel 195 events they had planned.

“Having become experts in adapting to the model of the unknown, we are doing alright,” Clancey D'Isa, Marketing Director for Seminary told Inside Edition Digital.

A member of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores since 1986, Obama visited 57th Street Books as an author for the first time for his book Dreams from My Father; then again, a few years later, for The Audacity of Hope (pictured).
A member of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores since 1986, Obama visited 57th Street Books as an author for the first time for his book Dreams from My Father; then again, a few years later, for The Audacity of Hope (pictured). Seminary Co-Op

It opened in 1961 as an independent University of Chicago bookstore, having been founded by students who came together to buy their college textbooks for cheaper than they could find elsewhere. It evolved into a brick and mortar store, and then grew into a second location. Now it's an iconic shop for book lovers across the country. 

At the start of the pandemic, the team shifted their sales, which mainly focused on in-person selling to digital. "We have a pretty good website and had online sales prior to COVID,” D’Isa said, but now with the doors shut to the public for the safety of their customers and staff, they are operating fully online.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, they had one to two people dedicated to online orders in both locations, which accounted for about 7% of their total sales. Now, full teams are dedicated to fulfill the significant increase in online sales.

Still, sales are down 47.6% from this time last year. But D'Isa said the store is soldiering on, thanks to customer loyalty and their strong footprint in Chicago’s South Side. Seminary is doing the best they can to bring their in-person browsing experience to the online world with curated digital pamphlets and experiences customers can have from the comfort of their own home. Next year, the store will celebrate its 60th anniversary, D'Isa confidently said. 

“Sales are down but we are persisting,” D’Isa said. “There is no question that we are here for the long fight. Our hope in this moment of crisis is that we are building a stronger future to work through a crisis."

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